It’s strange to think that Steve Martin started out his career at Disneyland. He worked there for eight years, he revealed during his AFI Life Achievement Award show video interview, doing magic tricks, and then moved on to do more magic and banjo playing as well as theater skits at Knott’s Berry Farm before writing stints at the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and multiple appearances on the Johnny Carson Show and Saturday Night Live.
The ceremony, held earlier this month, airs Saturday, June 13 at 10pm on TBS.
“Steve was the first rock star comedian,” stated his frequent Oscar co-presenter Tina Fey (see more of her remarks below), reminding us that he initially took a pay cut, back in 1978, to leave his status at the top of the Billboard arena chart. He was selling out huge stadiums, and Martin admitted that every time he did Saturday Night Live (from King Tut to a “wild and crazy guy” opposite Dan Aykroyd), attendance at his comedy shows skyrocketed. Aykroyd thanked Martin for helping him to making a living as one of the Blues Brothers, by booking them as an opening act.
Carl Reiner, who claimed that at age 93 he surely was the oldest person in the room at the packed Dolby Theatre where Martin twice hosted the Oscars (the AFI tables were literally on the Dolby stage), directed four of Martin’s early hits, which he also co-wrote: 1979’s “The Jerk,” film noir homage “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), romantic comedy “The Man with Two Brains” (1983) and the best of the lot, screwball comedy “All of Me” (1984), in which Martin memorably channeled costar Lily Tomlin. “Great comic minds show you the joke you’re in,” said Reiner.
“With his pipe cleaner legs and arms he would have made a great silent film star,” said Tomlin. “Steve’s head is like a Renaissance castle.”
Frank Oz did the honors on another musical, 1986’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” in which Martin did a great bit as a sadistic dentist, delicious Riviera caper “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” as Michael Caine’s dumb brother (1988), “HouseSitter” (1992) costarring Goldie Hawn, and Hollywood satire “Bowfinger” (1999), opposite Eddie Murphy.
John Landis took over for “Three Amigos!” (1986), one of Martin’s zaniest comedies, a western spoof that allowed him to show off the rope tricks he learned at Disneyland, co-starring Chevy Chase and Martin Short, who pushed the AFI tribute into roast territory. It was the highlight of the night, as the audience collapsed in laughter.
Fred Schepisi’s “Roxanne” (1987) marked Martin’s first solo credit, which earned him a WGA Award for adapting “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Martin and John Candy were a sublime pairing in John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), especially in the scene where they wake up in a hotel bed cuddled together.
AFI chairman Sir Howard Stringer set the tone early in the night as he approached the podium with an arrow stuck through his head.
“He’s not just the silly comic genius, but a real person,” said Sarah Silverman, “a real stiff, awkward, aloof person, but also standoffish.”
Amy Poehler auctioned off Steve Martin to a woman in a fuzzy hat: Martin Short.
Short pointed out that Steve Martin is very pale. “Steve, I’ve always wanted to ask you: How far did they get into the embalming process before you jumped off the table?” he asked, comparing Martin to a urinal with a white toupee on top. “I knew him when he was turning tricks at Disneyland,” he said. “I knew him when his urologist thought it was safe for him to wear white suits…Fun fact: Steve uses the same stunt double as Angela Lansbury.”
Queen Latifah warmed to the theme, calling her “Bringing Down the House” co-star “the whitest man in America…Usually, when I hear white people playing banjos, it’s time for me to get the hell out of that neighborhood.”
“I have spent the majority of my life doing a pale imitation of Steve Martin, and I resent him for this,” said Steve Carell. “He impacted me in such a deep lasting way. I owe everything to him.”
“He’s so great it’s stupid,” said his “Father of the Bride” costar Diane Keaton, who sang to him. “You’ve been a friend to me for such a long time..24 years. You are a good man.”
Martin’s award presenter Mel Brooks, expressing his envy of Martin’s talent, said, “he sticks his finger through his fly and does amazing things.”
When Martin finally took the stage, he concluded, “a comic genius is someone who decides never to go into comedy.”
Here’s a segment of Tina Fey’s speech:
“For me, Steve is never better or more appealing than when he plays a caring dad in Father of the Bride or Planes, Trains & Automobiles, that character will always be my favorite.
And I wanted to take this weird public opportunity to tell you how much I love you in those roles, and also how much joy it brings me to know that you are a dad now. And yes, that is a patronizing thing to say, but people say dumb stuff like that to women all the time. Writing, acting, touring with his bluegrass band, and now, father.
How does Steve juggle it all?
I was lucky enough to work with Steve in a movie called ‘Baby Mama.’ Anyone watch the whole thing? No. But in the film, ‘Baby Mama,’ Steve and I got to film several scenes together. And I remember every minute of our time together because Steve had a two-hour door-to-door. And we would chat during the turnarounds, and he gave me so much great showbiz advice, and that’s always stuck with me.
He said to me, “Amy. To be early is to be on time. [Being] on time is a sign of weakness. Never shake hands when [an] open-mouth kiss would suffice. There are no small parts, only small actors.” And then he just listed a bunch of actors under five-two.
He said, “You can fix your nose or your teeth, but to do both is more money than I am willing to lend you.”
He said, “It’s not show friendship. It’s Showbiz Pizza, and it’s my favorite restaurant.”
He told me, “Always find a way to give back.”
For example, Steve donates all his old white suits to lesbian commitment ceremonies.
He told me, “Always be nice to the little people because then at night, they’ll sneak in and fix your shoe. You know what? Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight, just enjoy it from the stands.”
Finally, he said, “If you’re going to pick up Marty Short, remember to support the neck.”
I learned so much from you, Steve, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to know you. And you have helped me so many times and in so many ways, showing up for SNL monologues, being a guest star on our dumb TV show, marrying a woman who is, I think, a younger, thinner, smarter version of me [the camera cut to Anne Stringfield, laughing]. It’s an honor to be a part of this evening, and to have one of my childhood dreams come true. I’m so glad that I got this one and not the sexual one I had of Adam West as Batman. You’re a genius. You mean a tremendous great deal to me.”